“If We Are Going to Chase People Away From the Church, Are We Still The Church?”

Years ago, I had a young man come to me in tears.  He and his wife were divorcing after 10 years of marriage with 3 children together.  There was no affair or abuse: they “grew out of love”.  He told me, “no one is innocent in this…she just had the guts to walk away.”  It was a tragic situation.  But it grew worse.

He had been teaching a youth Sunday school class at their church.  He loved it.  They were a couple of strong faith even in the midst of their marriage falling apart.  The church he was attending was her family’s church.  Her parents had been there most of their lives. The preacher visited the young man.  Using the Bible, he told him, “you can’t teach our young people anymore since you are getting a divorce.”  The young man tried to explain to no avail.  He accepted the decision.  But then, at the end of the conversation, the pastor said, “you need to leave this church.  The Bible is clear: a man cannot divorce his wife.  We cannot allow you to remain unless you repent and reconcile.  And…her family was here first.”

The young man came to see me since we knew each other.  We prayed and shed tears.  It wasn’t long before he drifted out of church completely.  To this day, he still won’t attend church because of the harm done.  I share this not to point to the pastor, or the young man, or the wife, or her family…I share it simply to show that there are times we close the doors of the church to people.  When we do, are we still the church?

Last weekend, Bishop Mande Muyombo of the North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a conference with over 2,000 churches) humbled everyone at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church last Saturday with a radical statement about what it means to be conservative and an amazing confession.  (I strongly encourage you to watch these two videos.)  Following his confession, the entire colloquy gathered together to ask for forgiveness for their actions as well.  He asked a question that has echoed in my heart all week: “If we are going to chase people away from the church, are we still the church?”

Bishop Muyombo is a traditionalist.  He does not agree with same-sex marriage.  But he is obviously wrestling with God’s Word – as many of us are – regarding exclusion of any of God’s children.  African, Filipino, and other international United Methodists want to keep the church unified even though they disagree with the practice of same sex marriage (there are some who want separate the church as well).  The same thing is occurring in our US United Methodist churches.  The difference is this: those on each side of this issue believe the other side is radical.  The choice seems binary: either leave the UMC to join a conservative Methodist Church that will exclude all LGBTQ folk; or stay in the UMC where the liberals will lead the church toward no truth, no beliefs, and no values.

This binary choice is false.

First, a new traditionalist Methodist Church does not feel they are “chasing away” LGBT folk.  They will welcome anyone and everyone, but they will stand firm that LGBT lifestyle is a sin and those practices cannot be lived out, blessed, or allowed in their church.  This will be a church of traditional non-compatiblists.  It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church does not mean it will become a raging, liberal, socialist (please feel free to fill in any word here that may scare you if you are a traditionalist non-compatiblist) church.  On the contrary, as Bishops Muyombo and Yambasu (from Sierra Leone, who convened the recent Protocol separation plan) make clear, the UMC will remain a church with great diversity and contextual flexibility.  This will be a church of traditional compatiblists, centrists, moderates, and progressive compatiblists. It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

It is deeply distressing that our church feels it must split, but I for one am ready to return all my focus and energy on making disciples of Jesus Christ!  And I want to be part of a church that doesn’t chase anyone away.

Chapelwood and the Future of The United Methodist Church

On Friday January 3, major news outlets reported the press release from a broad group of United Methodist leaders who have agreed in principle to a separation over the issue of human sexuality.  The Washington PostNew York Times, Christianity TodayCNN, and many others reported on the details agreed upon in the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.  As with any news these days, some of the headlines and reporting may mischaracterize the proposed plan.  News outlets and Bishop’s statements also don’t reveal how the potential separation may impact our local churches.  I want to share a few clarifying statements and give clarity on how this potential separation could impact Chapelwood UMC.

First, let me give you the simple synopsis of what this agreement means. I encourage you to read the actual protocol in the link above and read some of my previous blog posts about the Indianapolis Plan to give you background on some of the rationale for decisions.

  • This plan is not a final decision.  It is a plan being submitted to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church for deliberation in May 2020.  There are some agreed upon principles within it, but keep in mind – only the General Conference can make decisions affecting the United Methodist Church.
  • This plan will allow the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that would disallow same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons.  That new denomination would be formed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and would follow their newly proposed Book of Doctrines and Discipline for a New Methodist Church.
  • This plan would allow for the continuation of the United Methodist Church.  The UMC would remain intact with our Book of Discipline.  The only difference is that the restrictive language disallowing same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will be removed.  Each pastor, local church, and annual conference would decide whether they would do weddings or ordain clergy.
  • This plan allows churches, annual conferences, and central conferences to choose if they want to remain in the United Methodist Church or leave to join the new, traditionalist Methodist denomination.  All churches would keep their properties and assets.
  • Finally, the plan calls for an immediate moratorium on all charges/complaints addressing restrictions in the Book of Discipline related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings.  While someone could still file charges, the agreement calls to hold the complaints in abeyance until the agreed upon separation is finalized.  This will allow churches and pastors to begin living into ministry as they feel called.

How Does All This Affect Us at Chapelwood?

I love Chapelwood United Methodist Church.  We are a diverse community of faith that loves Jesus.  We impact the world for Christ in many different ways.  We are made up of multiple worship communities who each live out Christ’s love in contextually relevant ways.  Chapelwood, Mercy Street, The Center for Christian Spirituality, Fair Haven, Upper Room, Generaciones, and Oikon Chapelwood each seek to embody God’s grace as we receive it to all who need it!  Our pastors reflect ethnic and theological diversity.  At Chapelwood, we don’t agree on everything.  But we do agree on the essentials of the faith – the orthodox tenets of Christianity which we find in scripture, reflected in the Christian creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene), taught in John Wesley’s sermons and notes on the Old and New Testament, reflected in The General Rules of the Methodist Church and in our Articles of Religion.

If you have listened to me preach or speak at all over the past 6 years, you know that I believe the central focus of the Bible is this: God’s love seeks to renew humanity through Jesus Christ.  The life and ministry of Jesus Christ is the primary way we see God intersect with the world.  If you want to know what God would do in any given situation, look to Jesus.  In Matthew 9, Jesus says, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”  The truth is we are ALL sinners.  We must all learn what Jesus means when he says he desires mercy over sacrifice.

The church must be open to all.  No one should be told they do not belong at the table with Jesus Christ.  The issues of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will continue to be debated in the United Methodist Church.  There will be a lot of theological diversity within the UMC going forward, as there has been in the past.  You can be a part of a family with different views.  I just completed a week with my family in town arguing religion and politics!  We don’t agree on everything, but we love each other and we would never break fellowship over our disagreements.

There are many resources that address the different views Christians have on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons. One that I have found enlightening is a one-hour video by two friends and fellow professors at Candler School of Theology at Emory University – the Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson and the Rev. Dr. Kendall Soulen.  There is also a 30-minute follow up Q&A where they list their biblical references again.  They are friends who offer differing perspectives of Biblical interpretation regarding marriage within Christian communities.  I love the fact that they are friends and co-workers who engage in intellectual dialogue with different perspectives of scripture.  They engage in this conversation with love and kindness.  I hope this will be a model for us at Chapelwood.

Final thoughts:

  • As senior pastor, I want it to be clear that I will be leading Chapelwood to remain in the United Methodist Church.  There are two primary reasons for this.  First, the new traditionalist Methodist denomination will be very different in structure, practices, and beliefs from the United Methodist Church that exists today.  I included a link above to the new Book of Doctrines and Discipline for this church.  The changes are far more than simply disallowing same-sex marriage.  Simply put, leaving the UMC would deeply change Chapelwood’s identity, structure, practices, and beliefs.  Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church fully embraces who we are and what we have always stood for as Chapelwood.  We believe in embodying God’s grace to everyone!  Everyone is welcome to join us at God’s table as we struggle peacefully to live out our lives of discipleship.  We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be the kind of family that welcomes everyone!  Our leadership is aware of our direction and is supportive.  I have stated to our leadership on many occasions that Chapelwood will not make a hard right or left turn theologically.
  • In 2020, there will by many opportunities – dialogues, classes, and small groups – to discuss the differing ways we read and understand scripture.  We need to engage in conversations about the differing ways we read the Bible.  We need to grow in our Biblical literacy on ALL issues.
  • I encourage you to meet with any of our pastors (and even retired pastors) to discuss this issue with them one on one.  Our pastors have differing views on homosexuality, but we are all supportive of Chapelwood and we are all supportive of remaining in the United Methodist Church.  We love living in a diverse community of faith.
  • Chapelwood will continue to be a church made up of people with differing beliefs on the issue of homosexuality.  Life in community can be messy.  I’m okay with that.  We are a church filled with differing political opinions as well.  But, we are also of one mind when it comes to God’s kingdom work and the impact we make for Christ Jesus.
  • Our missional focus will not change.  We will continue to make disciples, embody grace, and impact the world.

Please be in prayer for our church and all our members.  I am praying for peace, understanding, love, and kindness.  I am also praying for calm in the midst of storms.

Look for opportunities coming soon to engage in further discussions on the future of Chapelwood and the UMC.  I am really excited about The Impact of Generosity sermon series in January and know that God will bless us as we engage in our annual stewardship campaign.  I look forward embodying God’s grace with you.

The Indianapolis Plan :: All Things New…Or Some Things?

Last week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church.  It was designed by a group of United Methodists  – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists.  Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses.  I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles.  I hope the comments you share on social media and on this blog will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work but help all of United Methodism find a way forward.  I think it would be helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world.  I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog.  We welcome feedback.

Basic Provisions – with my reflections following:

  1. The 2020 General Conference of the United Methodist Church would birth a Traditionalist United Methodist Church and a Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church. (Names are placeholders; each new denomination would choose their own name. Both can use “The United Methodist Church” with a modifier to distinguish the two if they so desire)
    1. I am not sure that the General Conference can “birth” a new denomination, but a new denomination can be formed – by the WCA, for example –  and the General Conference can create legislation that allows annual conferences, local churches, jurisdictions, and central conferences a mechanism to join a new expression.  
    2. I prefer the wording, “birth a new Traditional United Methodist Church and reform/renew the UMC into a new Centrist/Progressive expression of the United Methodist Church.  This is more in alignment with number 2 – “the United Methodist Church would not be dissolved but have its legal continuation through the Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church.”
    3. One of the big obstacles we struggled with – and still do today if you keep up with social media and the various plans/ideas – is the way we define what we are doing with our words.  ‘Form follows function’ for each of the plan you will see lifted up.  If a group simply wants one side to leave, the plan will come across as cold and unkind, seeking to put the departing group at a disadvantage.  If the plan creators truly believe we need to birth new expressions, well…the form will reflect that.  It is important to me that we give serious consideration to the many thousands of churches out that are stuck in inertia – they don’t want to deal with this, they don’t want to change, they don’t want to vote (it is easy to dismiss them, but we can’t – many are ‘sheep without a shepherd’ in this).  I often advocate for as little change as possible (I have been called an ‘institutionalist’ in all this, which is really funny to those who know me well).  I’m starting with “what” – the product.  That’s not a bad thing.  It is actually kind and empathetic to the needs of United Methodists all around the world that fear the unknown change.  But in this process, I am also confronted with the vision…the “why”…or better stated, what new thing does God desire in this?  We all have to ask ourselves some deep questions about what we want to see on the other side.  I found that traditionalists and progressives actually share a lot in common in this area.  They align on vision more than they think – they are reformers and not afraid to operate without nets.  Centrists – like me – desire more stability.  We need all of these voices together.  There is value in stability, but we also need resurrection and transformation.  I’m rambling now, so I will move on…
    4. In all the ‘plans’ you will read, ask this: Is one group leaving and everyone else staying?  Is everyone being asked to move into something ‘new’.  In our early conversations as everyone brought ‘their’ plans and advocated for them, it was obvious that the traditionalists wanted a way forward that has everyone entering into something ‘new’.  It is no secret they wanted dissolution (but so did some progressives, to be honest).  The centrists at the table said, “dissolution of the church is a non-starter” (see paragraph above).  It benefits centrists to have the UMC remain intact – inertia, kindness, empathy for so many churches out there.  It benefits traditionalists to have everyone choose something new – more churches would face a binary choice and we all know there are deeper issues to consider – it is not binary. 
    5. The assumption by many centrists and progressives is, “WCA has wanted to leave for 20 years”, so why don’t they just leave.  In my opinion, the United Methodist Church is in a very different place than other mainline churches in the US that have separated over this issue.  Whether we agree with it or not, the United Methodist position on marriage and ordination is still a traditional position.  I know, I know…many in the US do not agree and will live in opposition, but it is still the law of the church.  In other denominations, the position on homosexuality CHANGED and the conservative/traditionalists had to leave on principle…they lost, and they left.  The same thing would have happened in the UMC had the Simple Plan or One Church Plan passed in February 2019.  The WCA would have formed a new denomination and they would have left because they would have lost.  But the Traditional Plan passed.  This puts the UMC and the WCA in a different position than our Presbyterian or Episcopalian friends.  How do you win the vote and then turn around and leave?  No one does that, but we expect WCA and Good News to do that.  The UMC is also a global church.  The voices from around the world matter.  Much of the UM global church doesn’t want a dissolution, they don’t want to leave, but they also want a traditional view of marriage.  How do we simply disregard their voices?  We will have to find ways to compromise where all voices are heard.  One does not have to agree with what I am saying, but we must strive to understand it if we are to find common ground. 
    6. This is why the Indianapolis Group landed on NOT dissolving the United Methodist Church, but did agree that we ALL need to enter into new expressions.  
      1. There are a lot of people saying the Indy Plan is ‘dissolution’.  We obviously define the word differently.  I have always opposed dissolution and still do.  People may not like the plan, but I’m not sure it can be defined as a plan of dissolution.  If the denomination is simply renamed (remove United), if we remove the restrictive language, we keep all boards and agencies intact, we continue to remain connected to Central Conferences (those that don’t choose to leave), the General Conference remains as is, Judicial Council remains, Council of Bishops remain, episcopacy is the same, Jurisdictions, Constitution, all remain as they are right now – the Book of Discipline is exactly the same minus the restrictions against LGBTQ+ folk…I don’t define that as dissolution (the reformation will come after the separation).  The traditionalists really wanted dissolution and when we said no, they moved to half-dissolution.  When we said no, they wanted to dissolve boards and agencies.  We said no.  I will give them credit.  They realized that we were not going to agree to dissolution, that the global church doesn’t have the stomach for it, it would be filled with legal complications, and it would not pass at General Conference.  It would also cause everyone to dismiss the Indy Plan from the beginning.  The traditionalists moved a lot on this point.  The language ‘new expressions’ for everyone was a compromise, but we also felt it represents the vision God has for all of us to enter into something new.
      2. I have already stated in previous post my rationale against dissolution so I won’t repeat it here (although I may repeat it again in the future).
    7. Finally, I am a fan of simply renaming the United Methodist Church, “The Methodist Church” (which I believe we have legal ownership of, but I am not sure.)  Everyone agrees the UMC needs some radical reformation.  The removal of restrictive language in the Discipline on marriage and ordination alone makes us a very different denomination…and we are longer “United”.  I personally don’t have a problem dropping ‘United’.  Any church sign in the US can keep United Methodist if the stay in The Methodist Church.  There won’t be a squad roaming around policing signs.  The new, birthed traditional expression will obviously brand themselves to differentiate.

So I end with provision number 2:  The United Methodist Church would not be dissolved but would have its legal continuation through the Centrist/Progressive United Methodist Church.

Next Up :: Two, Three, Four, or More?

The Indianapolis Plan – My Experience

This week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church.  It was designed by a group of UMs  – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists.    My simple definition of a centrist is a compatibilist – whether center-left or center-right – we had both as our part of the centrists on the Indy team.  I attempted to represent the many centrist pastors and churches I have known and currently know who have differing views on marriage and ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, but long to remain unified as one church in the midst of our disagreements. My hope has always been that we could remain unified as a church – even in the midst of our differences on many issues.  I realize that is not possible for some in our denomination.  Therefore, I believe some type of separation is needed in order for us to focus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I have not blogged much the past two years or more because I have focused work in my local congregation.  I wanted to do my best to prepare Chapelwood UMC in Houston, Texas for the many possibilities in our future.  Chapelwood has always been a cutting edge, inclusive church in many ways. Chapelwood is very diverse with differing views on human sexuality, worshiping on multiple campuses, all while reaching multiple contexts and demographics.  Over the past couple of years, we peacefully struggled together regarding our understanding as a church on this issue, as well as other issues.  We do not all agree, but we do agree that we want to be a church where all are welcome and included in life and ministry.

Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses.  I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles.  I hope the comments you share will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work, but help all of United Methodism to find a way forward.  My hope is that we won’t spend time arguing over human sexuality.  I think we all realize we don’t agree which is why we are discussing separation.  I think it would be more helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world.  I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog.

Before I discuss the actual plan (in the soon to follow posts), let me begin by sharing my experience of those who gathered for this work.

We all came in with our assumptions and positions.  We prayed.  We shared Holy Communion.  We advocated.  We laid down ‘non-negotiables’.  We tried to define our constituencies.  We listened.  We struggled.  We had to take time apart.  We shed some tears at the weight of the whole thing.  Whatever anyone says about someone (caucuses or individuals), you don’t really know their heart until you share a meal and a beer with them – I’m talking about me drinking beer…not anyone else.  I honestly believe that each person was open to the process.  I made friends with those I disagree with on these issues.  I don’t know where it all lands, but we strived to not operate by the toxic political structure of our world.  It is important to me that we embody God’s grace as we receive it to those who need it.  I felt God’s grace extended to me.  I hope I extended it to them.

Simply put, this has not been easy or fun.  But the people who gathered are seeking a way to live into the future that is faithful with their beliefs.  There are more voices needed around the table.  I will tell you there were other voices and other caucuses that spoke into this process.  I won’t share the extent…I will leave that to them.  I want every person in that room to be my brother and sister in the same church, but I realize that won’t happen in the same denomination.  For now, we struggle with a way forward that creates space for people to live faithfully.

Next Up:  The Introductory Paragraphs

The Terrible Temptation for the United Methodist Pastor

Last week, I preached on Sloth. Or, as the ancient Christians referred to it, Acedia.  I shared a personal testimony that of the Seven Deadening Sins, this one has affected me the most in recent days, weeks, and even years.  I believe it also affects many of my brothers and sisters who are in ministry in the United Methodist Church as we have been battling over the issue of human sexuality.

I have heard it said that many United Methodist pastors are going through the stages of grief.  Others are dealing with naturally occurring depression triggered by this difficult event.  But for me, Acedia/Sloth is my struggle.  Acedia was always thought to be linked to vocation and it was considered the monk’s (pastor’s) most dangerous temptation.  The vows we take to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples are foolishness to the world.  We have given our lives to this vocational calling.  We put all our chips in the UMC/Wesleyan basket.  We bet everything we have on this and we are uncertain of the future.  I truly believe that this “fight” in our denomination has led many pastors to lose focus, become listless, and find themselves spiritually sluggish.

We must do all we can to stay focused on the main thing.  However, that is easier said than done.

Kathleen Norris writes this about Sloth/Acedia: “At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care.  The person struggling with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of caring.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” (from Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life)

Thomas Aquinas thought of Sloth as a “paralysis of the will to continue,” which begins with dissatisfaction and ends in desperation.  He went on to say that the slothful person loses sight of the goal of life.  Sloth is a fundamentally spiritual issue – a sadness in relation to belief and practice.  Aquinas thought that joy and charity were the opposites to Sloth. After all, we should find joy in following Christ and that joy should generate love!

John Cassian believed that the spiritual person’s Acedia/Sloth could be disguised as good deeds, or even fighting the good fight.  When we help others and fight for a cause, we can distract from the interior work we need to do.  Cassian said the religious person beset by the “foul mist of acedia decides that he/she should pay their respects to others and visit the sick.”  The hidden good work is of value here.

William May wrote, “The soul in the state of sloth is beyond sadness and melancholy.  It has removed itself from the rise and fall of feelings; the very root of its feelings in desire is dead.  That is why, for the medieval moralist, sloth was…the most terrifying of sins.  It is sin at its utter most limit.  To be human is to desire.  The good person desires God and other things in God.  The sinful person desires things in the place of God, but they are still recognizably human inasmuch as they have known desire.  The slothful person, however, is a dead person, an arid waste…their desire itself has dried up.” (from Sinning Like a Christian)

I shared these steps on Sunday that I am using to battle Acedia/Sloth, and I wanted to share them again:

  1. Make a firm intention to keep on keeping on.  Take the next right step.
  2. Bite off small spiritual disciplines and tackle humble activities.
  3. Care for others (this causes us to stop turning inward)
  4. Pay attention to your inner life.
  5. Make a vow of stability (the Benedictines make this vow so they are forced to deal with interior issues in the face of difficult situations/locations)
  6. Look for joy.  It is all around, but acedia/sloth blinds us.

 

Reading Paul Again…For the First Time

This will be a odd blog post.  It’s just passages of scripture.

I recently returned from Greece and Turkey with a group of 50 of my new closest friends from Chapelwood.  We followed in the footsteps of Paul and I wanted to read all of Paul’s letters again several times – to see if I noticed anything new in light of the trip.

I have to admit the divisions of the world (and the church) do color my readings.  What I discovered reading Paul again was a friend and co-laborer.  Paul is a mentor.   He is doing exactly what I am doing…fighting every day to share the Gospel and keep the followers of Jesus together so they can effectively change the world.  In every letter, Paul is trying to manage the divisions in his churches.  Paul is strict with those who are dividing the church.  But if you read all of them together, you see the larger themes: he encourages them to love, be kind, forgive, bear with weaker members.  Paul is trying to keep the church together so they can be a visible testimony to the power of Christ in the world.

I found it transforming.  I hope you will as well.  And if you feel going to Greece will help you in your readings, let me know! 😉

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.  For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites…

– Romans 16:17-18

Now, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose…Has Christ been divided?

– 1 Corinthians 1:10, 13a

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So, we are ambassadors for Christ…

– 2 Corinthians 5:17-20a

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

– Galatians 5;13-15

I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

– Ephesians 4:1-6

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

– Philippians 2:1-5

Put to death, therefore, whatever in your is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  These are the ways you once followed when you were living that life.  But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

– Colossians 3:5-11

Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.  But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

– 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so they they may be ashamed.  Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

– 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

– 1 Timothy 4:12

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.  Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene…have nothing to to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, and apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness,  God may perhaps grant that they will depend and come to know the truth…

– 2 Timothy 2:14-17a, 23-25

Remind them to be subject to the rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.  For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, desipicable, hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit…I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.  But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.  After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.

– Titus 3:1-11

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.

– Philemon 17-19

Good News to Bad Christians

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

 –1 Corinthians 1:10-17

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 –1 Corinthians 1:1-5

It seems that our country is divided over everything.  I mean, we can’t even have a little fun when IHOP changes its name to IHOb just to draw attention to itself.  We all want to claim the moral high ground based on the values that are important to us.  For some, obeying law and respecting authority is the highest value.  For others, justice and mercy are the highest values.  And then there are many others who find themselves on a spectrum between multiple other values that include the two I listed already.  We don’t think the same way.  But we must acknowledge that we are influenced by powerful values and the leaders who embody those values.

I find it fascinating how the Apostle Paul dealt with a church that struggled with many divisions.  The church in Corinth was his most diverse community and most divided church.  There were many social, political, and economic divisions within the church alone (Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell points to 15 divisions Paul addresses in his letters).  How did the people of Corinth deal with their problems?  They separated into “factions” based on partisan issues (partisan means strong supporter of a party, cause, or person).  Each of these factions claimed their own ‘leaders’ – they co-opted Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and even Jesus!  Christians were slandering and quarrelling.  Paul addressed this by sending good news to bad Christians in 1 Corinthians.  Paul starts his letter by writing, “let there be no divisions among you, but be united in the same mind and the same purpose…it has been reported there are quarrels among you…some say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ””.

I love how Paul does this.  He starts with himself as the lowest “claimed faction” leader and moves up to Christ.  After all, if your are in a faction that claims Cephas (Peter) or Christ you have way more authority than Paul or Apollos!  But Paul calls this for what it is: if you think you have the moral high ground just because you claim Christ and turn him into a leader of your faction, you are sadly mistaken.  You think that makes you right?  Christ can not be divided.  Christ is “faction-less”.

If we want to follow Christ, we must follow Christ.  You can’t follow another faction leader or even their ideals.  You can’t divide Christ and claim him for your faction.  You can’t slander the leaders of other factions.  You can’t slander or quarrel with members of a different faction.  If you are followers of Christ, you must love one another in the midst of your differences and you must stop tearing each other down.  This is Paul’s central lesson in 1 Corinthians.  “You have divisions…okay; but what are those divisions rooted in?  Your faction’s belief system?  That is not what I taught you.”  Christ is not a faction and he is our primary leader.  Christ gets the highest allegiance over every other leader.  No one gets more loyalty than Christ…not Paul, not Apollos, not Cephas, and not any other earthly leader.  Only Christ…and we don’t get to divide Christ’s teachings into what we like and the what we don’t like.  We must follow his teachings and embody his actions.  We must remind ourselves of the greatest commandment he gave us and lay the rest down at his feet.

  • First reflection: How much of our quarrel, slander, emotional frustration, division, etc. is rooted in one of our factions?  Can we acknowledge that we are part of a faction that influences us more than Jesus’ teachings? (nationalism, political party, ideology, denominational, etc.). These are questions we can only answer for ourselves if we hope to be transformed by Christ.  It starts with me.

The second thought has to do with HOW we deal with our divisions.  Have you noticed how frustrating it becomes engaging in discussions trying to outdo one another with facts, resources, words, definitions, history, and laws?  You say something, I counter with another fact, you counter back, I counter back…it escalates and escalates and all we are left with is bitterness and frustration.  We try to out enlighten one another…as if some report or study or quote will convert the person we disagree with.  We post a new article from our favorite faction-news-outlet and…BOOM!  (Mic drop…walk off stage).  It doesn’t work that way.  Why?  Because as long as we have loyalty to a faction, whatever that faction is, we will remain loyal.  Our worldview will not be changed by any human argument against it as long as our allegiance is locked in.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  His quote evolved into, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Use all the articles and news reports you want from your faction outlets.  Those who disagree with you will discount them before they even read them.  There will be no boom.  There will be no mic drop.  Just more frustration and anger.

This is what Paul addresses to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use “words” to argue divisions or try to solve the problem.  Words won’t work.  Paul knows the same words that created the problems can’t solve the problems.  Paul wrote, “when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I decided to know nothing but Christ and him crucified…my speech and proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”  Paul realized he had to shine a light on the demonstration of the Spirit, not words.  He reminds them that he didn’t proclaim Christ with words but with the power of God.  Corinthians were brilliant, cosmopolitan people…words alone would not convert them.  Paul did not depend upon the wisdom of the “rulers of the age” (whether philosophical or political), instead he pointed to the things taught to by the Spirit…spiritual things modeled in loving action…things embodied by the life and teachings of Christ, revealed by the power of God.

  • Second reflection:  In what ways do we depend on words, teachings, eloquent rebuttals, news stories, research data, etc. to try to convince other factions they are wrong?  Are we willing to admit that we look for information and listen to the voices of our own “factions”?  Can we see the fallacy of depending on the wisdom of the rulers of the world to try to change other peoples views?  How do Paul’s words challenge those of us struggling with divisions in our own country and our churches?  What would it look like to discuss our differences in a new ways that could reveal the power of God and build unity?

Let me close with some honest admission paraphrasing Paul.  Here is a trustworthy saying: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  When I am a bad Christian, my struggle is being a part of the Christ faction.  I have to constantly test my loyalties to make sure I haven’t made Christ the co-opted, claimed leader of my own faction.  All Christians, good and bad, should wrestle with this.  Paul wrote these words to me…but I thought I’d share them with you:

“Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God…so let no one boast of human leaders…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  

— 1 Corinthians 3:18-23